Like the tremulously beautiful performances by butoh master Kazuo Ohno of the 1970s, in which he depicted the ghost of his “dead foetus” alter ego, or the childhood recollections of his peer Tatsumi Hijikata of holding himself beneath a deadly whirlpool while undergoing multiple deaths and rebirths, UnderCurrent is a violently sublime work, playing on the sadomasochistic beauty of our fragile embodiment. - Realtime 2005

UnderCurrent5 Performances & 2 Media Artifacts Touring Australia & UK 2002-4

Presented in galleries as a live performace with dramatic lighting, large-projection video feed and amplified 'breathing'. The documentation of two works: UnderCurrent 2003 7'00" (PICA/AU) viwed at medium scale at waist height and UnderCurrent 2004 3'33" (Bonnington/UK) shown large-scale from floor to ceiling - have been produced as media performance artifacts for intallation in exhibitions as looped projections.

Designing the Performance Journey

What does it mean to perform under pressure and with self-containment? The body is suction-sealed inside a 45cm transparent dome containing 16minutes of air. The body ‘members states and conditions from subspace towards an aqueous alterity manifested through a movement trajectory. The performance concludes when either a) the air depletes, b) poisoning occurs, c) 25 minutes passes. Emergency oxygen and a first aid attendant should be present. Post-dive recuperation and body monitoring is employed.


This performance series explores the possibility of using a land-based housing to act as a mini biosphere shelter. It asks: how do the states and conditions of Aquabatics reference wider human states and conditions? How does the action of performing Under Current on land prescribe the states and condition of Aquabatics or my own state and condition? Is ‘the dome’ a place of abode? Is it a sanctuary to call home? Is Under Current the activism of a lost body roaming in search of something lost…? Does it reference the awareness of our own fragility and the pressures on the atmospheric shell protecting all of life on planet Earth?

Australian performance artist Sarah Jane Pell's works highlight the body's transfer of air and our dependence on air as living, breathing beings. They explore the physical and emotional limits of the body. Interdepend creates a closed-circuit life support system between Pell and artist Martyn Coutts, and Undercurrent presents a single performer contained within a sealed transparent dome with a finite amount of breathable air. These works are extremely physically demanding for the performer and have an overwhelming emotional intensity. In Fumifugium, Evelyn refers to the air as the soul or spirit of man. Pell's works seem to give that soul or spirit a physical manifestation, either through human interdependence or through a single womb-like containment that without breathable air could quickly become a tomb. - Aer - The Vehicle of the Soul by Andrea Polli

In many ways, the ‘dome’ replicates the cavernous air pocket of a diving helmet. The dome behaves like a conch shell. My contained breath is amplified and it surrounds my ears in simultaneous time like being underwater. As such, I wear a wireless microphone during the performance to transmit my amplified breathing to the audience. Like a diving helmet, the dome also fills with condensation leaving a hot and moist residue on my skin and the skin of the dome. It impedes visibility of the outside world and for the outside world it impedes visibility inwards.

As I would employ a life-line or the umbilical to the surface in diving, I do in this performance. Live camera operators and on-site medical support staff were my life lines to the surface and not passive attendants. Evidently my relationship with them was critical to my understanding of my relationship in the performance. I had to know that we could ‘speak’ as subject-to-subject in the undertaking of the performance whether this was visible or invisible; spoken or not. I asked them to be prepared to follow me through the process of the work and find the beauty in my body modification process no matter how contorted or distressed it appeared. I (unconsciously) asked them to be guardian realising the success of the work came down to my relationship with these artists and the role of mediator/ translator feeding me and the audience. In Australia I trusted Lorraine Corker and in the UK, Michael Mayhew.

As a strategy to evoke "mama" (Corker's femine dogma nee dada), Corker painted an eye on the palm of her hand which held the camera. Corker’s vision-capture has become much of the aesthetic of my performance history. It is what you see if you were not there, and it is also what you could never see from any distance as an audience. Corker is literally responsible for giving others a unique and privileged insight into my process and I am very humbled by the maturity and sensitivity she brings to this.

Mayhew’s strategy was very different. He used the camera to dance with me, my shadows and the image on the screen behind. During both UK performances he turned the camera off half way through, when he himself felt abandoned, ridiculous or ignored in the process. For him, there was no point in following me further if he felt invisible. I continued on regardless. Inadvertently, when Mayhew cut off the beam to the live video projections that were closely monitoring my body, he diminished my visibility also leaving or positioning me at an even greater distance from the audience. For Mayhew the connection was too dangerous and he contested/ protested silently and stood by, waiting for me to emerge. By severing the live feed, Mayhew unintentionally supported my passage further towards an indescribable semiotic space and overwhelming escape – adding even greater tension for the implicated audience.

For final performance of Under Current in the Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham, I experimented with a live post-performance care operation. Firstly, I did not remove myself from the audiences’ line of sight once the performance had concluded. Since I required assistance to stand out of the dome and walk to a stool, I did so in full view of the audience – adding to the perceived state of ‘intensive care’. There I sat perched like a storyteller. The audience milled around and, touch me in front of everyone else – as they seem to need to do after I perform UnderCurrent. The truth was people were close enough to catch me if I fainted. I sat there for nearly an hour and relayed my experience, talking about the frightening and exquisite natures of the work from the inside, the body modification process and the biological considerations for post-performance duty-of-care. I was very tired. Mostly the audience spoke and mirrored my journey. I listened and tried to understand. I tried to understand the experience for the audience and the socially coded nature of my role. The audience became my mirror in a way and guided me through the intensive care. The work concluded when everyone was ready to leave – except me. For some reason, I felt gutted. I still do and I have never gone back to the gallery. Not even to collect my dome.

Training by Sarah Jane Pell, NRLA Midland 2003 Photo Lorraine Corker Training by Sarah Jane Pell, NRLA Midland 2003 Photo Lorraine Corker Training by Sarah Jane Pell, NRLA Midland 2003 Photo Lorraine Corker

National Review of Live Art, Midland Platform Performance by Sarah Jane Pell, NRLA Midland Railway Workshops Western Australia 2003. Photographer Lorraine Corker.


Marshall, J., (2005) The Art of Life Support, Real Time & On Screen Vol 68, Aug/ Sep 2005, pp. 48

Mateer, J., (2004) Arts Alive in the West: The National Review of Live Art, Midland, Perth, Art Monthly Australia, No. 166 December 2003 – February 2004, p.42

Jansen, A., (2003) New Wave Artist, The West Magazine, Nov 28, p.27-28, pp. 2, 27, 28

McGrath, J. (2003) OCH #15, Exhibition Review, Art Seen in WA, Nov